[This is Constantine season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
The spooky story of blues singers like Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson, who were said to have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for musical talent, has been an inspiration for many other works. Walter Hill's 1986 movie Crossroads is about a young musician who goes on a long journey to find one of Robert Johnson's lost songs, and in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Tommy Johnson and his deal with the devil are a key part of the story.
Robert Johnson was also a character in the Supernatural season 2 episode 'Crossroad Blues,' and if Constantine wants to avoid comparisons to the show that it's already starting to closely resemble, then picking over the bones of Supernatural's old plots probably isn't the way to go. 'The Devil's Vinyl' at least chooses to focus less on Johnson himself (restyled as a singer called Willie Cole in the episode) and more on the legacy that he leaves behind in an acetate disc that records his final moments as the devil comes to collect a soul, and unwittingly becomes part of the music industry along the way.
If the First of the Fallen is being set up as an eventual antagonist, then an episode which establishes that even a rough decades-old recording of the devil's voice is enough to freeze the shelf it's placed on and drive anyone who listens to it to homicidal/suicidal insanity is a nice bit of foreshadowing. The real antagonist introduced in this episode, however, is Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite, a voodoo priest who is eager to get his hands on the acetate and doesn't mind spilling a bit of blood to get it - so long as that blood belongs to other people.
'The Devil's Vinyl' is about on par with last week's episode: better than the pilot, but still failing to prove that Constantine has what it takes to differentiate itself from the dozens of other supernatural shows out there, and a certain uniqueness of quality is what this series really needs if it's going to have some staying power. Right now the writers seem to be hanging most of their hopes on the main character and his quirks, which means that we get a little bit more background to the John Constantine story.
As readers of the comics will know, John's troubled twenties included a stint in a punk band called Mucous Membrane. While this fact hypothetically presents plenty of opportunity to diversify Constantine's soundtrack a little, the actual song choices don't get any more imaginative than The Ramones' "I Wanna be Sedated" and The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" - the latter of which is such a grossly obvious choice for a British punk rocker to be listening to that it becomes an ironically safe and inoffensive use of a song about anarchy.
When not plumbing the depths of their Punk Songs That Everyone Has Heard Of mix CD, the showrunners also attempt to give Zed something to do. It doesn't go well. The psychic manages to track down John and Chas (psychics are good at that), but her role in the show still essentially amounts to turning the pages of the script and pointing to where they are supposed to go next. Her motivation for constantly tagging along on John's adventures is loosely defined as a desire to learn how to master her abilities, but she already has a strong enough handle on them to be a walking, talking route planner for the plot.
Chas is similarly left to twiddle his thumbs when it comes to his character development. The most interesting thing about Chas was brought up in the pilot and hasn't come up since, so he's reduced to acting as a dull, compliant henchman for John. The victims to be saved in this episode - Jasmine Fell and her family - are equally forgettable. Manny the angel seems to show up again only as a reminder to the audience that he still exists. With all the supporting characters falling completely flat, it's left to John and Papa Midnite to try and prop up the saggy canvas of 'The Devil's Vinyl' like two wobbly tentpoles in a heavy downpour.
Credit is due to Matt Ryan, who's putting as much heart and soul into John Constantine as can be mustered from the lackluster scripts. He gets a fun introduction in 'The Devil's Vinyl' as Zed walks in on him covered in blood and chanting a summoning spell, and he also gets a chance to use some psychic paper that he stole from Doctor Who.
Perhaps Constantine's writers didn't get the memo, but one of the comic book character's more impressive traits is that he's such a good con artist that he often doesn't need to use magic to solve problems. In this show, he's so unskilled as a con artist that he has to resort to using magic just to get past the front desk of a nursing home.
As for Papa Midnite, one thing can definitely be said in his favor: he certainly can come up with a creative way to slowly kill someone. If this show gets canceled then he can at least look forward to a promising career as a James Bond villain.
Constantine returns in ‘A Feast of Friends’ next Friday @10pm on NBC.
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